Sunday, November 15, 2009



In 1892, eight years before he was catapulted to fame by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Lyman Frank Baum must surely have read this Preamble to the Populist Party Platform:

We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot box, the legislatures, the congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized. The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced...and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists.

Urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down their wages; the fruit of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two classes -- paupers and millionaires.

Sound familiar? Make you mad? It made him mad, too, and four years later, he marched in torchlight parades for William Jennings Bryan, the Populist candidate who lost to McKinley. "You shall not press down on the brow of labor this crown of thorns,” Bryan said, “You shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold." The crowds cheered, and so did Baum.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a product of that man and his times, both an abiding fairy tale (the first crafted from American themes), and a clever, wry, ironic allegory of economic, social and political affairs in 1900 America. As readers or viewers a hundred years from now will have little understanding of “modified limited hangout” or “Monicagate”, so audiences today have little feel for the cultural context of Oz apparent both to Baum and his initial readers. What did they understand which we don’t, though the story still charms ?

Turn-of-the-century America was a land awash in conflict over race, class and money. Midwestern farmers were organizing to resist the aggressive capitalism of east coast financiers, a struggle symbolized in the 1890s by the Populists’ Free Silver Movement. Gold belonged to international bankers in the big cities; silver belonged to the folks out west, and expanded currency came to be seen as a symbol of economic justice for the masses of the American people.

Baum was most sympathetic to this agrarian world view, with its critique of the false and destructive values of international capital. Look at what happened to the Tin Man -- a worker turned from a human being into a heartless machine by the Wicked Witch of the East -- the dehumanizing effects of capital and industrialism. Dorothy’s journey reveals the dangers and promises facing the heartland from sectional powers. Oz is a confusing, alienating, and dangerous, if beautiful, world, not unlike our own.

With the establishment of the Federal Reserve System in 1910, the original monetary issues had so receded from public consciousness that the makers of the 1939 film felt free to change the most basic metaphor of the book: Baum’s silver shoes became the famous ruby slippers (better in technicolor!), while the Witch’s golden hat was replaced with a crystal ball. Still, the skeleton remains: Oz is the abbreviation for ounces -- the measure of silver and gold; the constraining, yet dangerous path that leads to the city of central power is made of yellow bricks; all the inhabitants of the capital wear glasses the color of greenbacks which colors their view; and finally, the leader is a fraud, his power a product of secrecy and spin.

Baum was of the school of thought of Louis Mayer (MGM): “If I want to send a message, I’ll use a telegram.” Consequently the political allegory is always secondary to the general story, and is readily abandoned whenever it might detract from “wholesome” teachings for children -- his stated goal. Thus, one might ponder the apparent contradiction: though the Wizard rules by fear and deceit, he is actually “a good man.” Is this just a little “nicey-nice”, or does it represent a deeper understanding of the struggle between humanity and power? Our current President offers us similar questions to ponder.

Certainly the Wizard is benevolent in recognizing the Scarecrow’s real intelligence, the Tin Man’s real capacity for feeling, and the Cowardly Lion’s real courage. In the Populist tradition, he empowers ordinary people with their own enduring values of common sense, compassion and courage. And so, each is able to achieve the master goal of the story: finding home. At the same time, Baum’s humane vision is achieved by shifting the focus away from systematic questions: why is the country divided into sections and warring races, why are good people ruled by evil rulers, why, even, is Kansas, the heartland, such a miserable place? Thus he anticipates postmodern political paralysis: just heal yourself, and everything will be all right. (And thus, the power structure endures.)

But I feel we must respect Baum’s instinct for this overwhelmingly successful work: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz should not be overweighted with such questions. There are many paths to existential, cultural or political home. Dorothy’s journey has moved people for a hundred years -- across class, race, sexual, educational and regional lines -- because it illustrates, simply and imaginatively, T.S. Eliot’s thought from “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Marc Estrin

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